“When we know, in effect, what our cells know, health care will be revolutionized, giving birth to regenerative medicine – ultimately including the prolongation of life by regenerating our aging bodies with younger cells,” Dr. William Haseltine, CEO of Human Genome Sciences Inc., told the New York Times in a November 2000 article. He added that by learning the cell’s language and chemical processes that turn on/off cell repair, we can in essence connect with our internal fountain of youth. That’s not all stem cells research, nanotechnology and regenerative medicine can do though.
Regenerative medicine has great potential to help patients suffering from severe injuries and lost limbs. Take Lee Spievack, for instance. He sliced off his fingertip while working with a hobby shop airplane propeller. His brother happened to be a medical researcher and instructed him to apply a special powder to his wound.
After four weeks, Spievack’s entire fingertip had grown back; the skin, nail, blood vessels and all! The powder was made from the extracellular matrix of a pig bladder containing proteins, connective tissues and stemcells. “It tells the body, start that process of tissue regrowth,” explains Dr. Steven Badylak of the University of Pittsburgh. Theoretically, if a person can regrow a body part, they can even regrow a missing limb, he added.
Another focus of regenerative medicine is to replace ailing body parts in a more natural way, using adult stem cell research as a springboard. “The cells have all the genetic information necessary to make new tissue,” says Dr. Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest Institute explained. “That’s what they are programmed to do. So your heart cells are programmed to make more heart tissue, your bladder cells are programmed to make more bladder cells.”
Clinical trials are already underway that involve creating a patch of bladder cells or kidney cells or liver cells that may work with surrounding tissue to become a fully functioning transplant. Rather than go through the trouble of finding qualified donors, scientists will one day be able to grow organs from one’s own cells or stimulate the cells to repair the tissue internally.
Much of the progress being made in regenerative medicine involves studying animals that possess this asset. For instance, salamanders can regrow tails or lost limbs. Most stem cells research suggests that mammals have the ability to regenerate skin, bone and liver, but cannot regenerate entire limbs on their own. If scientists can harness regenerative capabilities, then the life span of humans can be extended indefinitely and new ways to reverse the effects of aging will be uncovered.